Are final rules final?

The new hours-of-service (HOS) regulations took effect on October 1 after many years of wrangling and arguments, but the situation may still not be settled. At presstime, it was not certain whether the most vocal opponents of the rules Public Citizen and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters would fight the ruling in court again. The groups contended that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration

The new hours-of-service (HOS) regulations took effect on October 1 after many years of wrangling and arguments, but the situation may still not be settled. At presstime, it was not certain whether the most vocal opponents of the rules — Public Citizen and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters — would fight the ruling in court again.

The groups contended that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) did not take into account drivers' health when they rewrote the rules. In July 2004, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit threw the new rules out, forcing FMCSA to rework them.

According to FMCSA's research, driver fatigue is the cause of less than 6% of large truck accidents, and HOS rules are aimed at preventing that segment only. Other regulations, mainly those concerning equipment safety, address most of the remaining reasons, the agency says.

FMCSA critics charge that as the pressures of just-in-time deliveries grow, along with driver shortages, this fatigue-related figure could increase, so the HOS rules do not go far enough.

One provision of the new ruling that upsets many opponents concerns the way split sleeper-berth teams must satisfy their 10-hour off-duty requirements. Currently, most driving teams prefer to work in five-hour shifts, according to Teamster officials. Under the new rules, though, a driver must take eight consecutive hours of rest in the berth and another two consecutive hours off-duty to satisfy the requirement.

Teamsters head James Hoffa noted: “The only thing this will do is force teams to drive for eight hours straight.” FMCSA officials disagreed, contending that drivers who took an eight-hour block of rest suffered less fatigue. Hoffa maintained that forcing a driver to sleep in a berth while the truck was rolling did not offer a restful sleep.

“That's impractical for most team operations,” said OOIDA President and CEO Jim Johnston in a prepared statement. “We're asking that the DOT retain the current exemption, which allows the drivers to take sleeper-berth time in whatever increments they want as long as no period is less than two hours.”

Even the American Trucking Assns., which generally supported the new ruling, would have preferred more time to study the impact of the sleeper berth provision. The group was successful in having a bill introduced in the House of Representatives to delay the provision until January, but so far the bill has not progressed. “We need a chance to test the sleeper berth rule,” said ATA president Bill Graves. “We need to talk to carriers about it.”

Driver fatigue issues aside, some trucking analysts say that the sleeper berth provision could affect productivity for truckload carriers, although probably not to a measurable extent. On the other hand, if the new provision makes the job look less desirable to current and potential drivers, it could exacerbate the driver shortage.

Opponents of the new rules also take exception to a short-haul provision. Drivers operating within 150 miles of their terminal, and who do not need CDL certification, will be allowed to extend their workdays from 14 hours to 16 hours twice a week. They will be allowed to drive a maximum of 11 hours after 10 consecutive hours off duty. Again, opponents say this scheme will only lead to more tired drivers. In addition, these drivers do not have to maintain logbooks.

The intent of the new rules is to keep tired drivers off the road, but studies have shown that fatigue affects everyone uniquely. And with diverse road conditions, equipment and weather, prescribed time limits remain inadequate to fix the problem. All sides agree that mental and physical fatigue is the only issue — but how to regulate it remains elusive with a one-size-fits-all regulation.

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